David - Gran Hotel Nacional and Interviews
Trip Start Dec 27, 2008
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Panama: Eight Destinations in Which to Spend the Winter Months
First Time Reader?
Why Panama? – This blog explains the rationale of the trip and this series of blogs.
Destination no. 5 of 8 (in no particular order)
Part 4 of 4
Date of Visit: February 2010
Date Blog Written: June 29, 2010
Gran Hotel National de David and the Interviews
In every city there is a hotel that transcends the rest to become a symbol of the city.
Since we live in Victoria, British Columbia the choice for such a hotel in Victoria would be the legendary and historic Empress Hotel facing the beautiful Inner Harbour of Victoria. It is only an eight-minute walk from where we live and where I'm writing this blog. About four times a week on my way to my workout at the YMCA, I make a point of walking through the hallways of the hotel and the adjacent Victoria Convention Centre just to soak up the unparalleled Victorian atmosphere. One of the delights of visiting Victoria is to take a one-hour tour of the Empress Hotel to get a sense of history that surrounds this beautiful building designed by the famous architect Francis Rattenbury.
When it comes to the city of David there is only one choice of a hotel that fits this category and that would be the Gran Hotel Nacional located four blocks from the Parque Cervantes.
As a matter of disclosure I did not stay at this hotel since my travels and blogs definitely fall into the "budget" category. My visit to the hotel was unplanned and became noteworthy when by happenstance I had two great interviews that took place here.
For details about the hotel and Chiriqui Province explore the links at:
For my interviews and impressions, read on.
It was while I was exploring the grounds of the Gran Hotel Nacional that I was drawn to the blue sparkling waters of the swimming pool. Nearby was the bar and patio tables that were unoccupied except for one gentleman. He was enjoying the hot afternoon with a drink.
I walked by slowly all the while thinking – he looks American … he must be an expat … what are you waiting for? … go for it … talk to him.
I am glad that I did for, excuse the pun, it was a "Lucky Strike" as I will explain later.
Bill - Expat Interview no. 10
I felt like I had met a bit of local history when I discovered that Bill had spent a part of his working life as the person responsible for the operations of the British American Tobacco Company here in David.
We are talking history because Bill retired from the British American Tobacco Company 26 years ago and he has been coming back with his wife to the Gran Hotel Nacional every year ever since.
It is not only the hotel but also the strong bonds of friendship created here many years ago that keeps him coming back.
When I heard the mention of tobacco and the British American Tobacco Company here in Panama I immediately made the association with bananas and the United Fruit Company, that later became Chiquita. It played such an important role in the economy of Panama that Panama was branded as the original “Banana Republic”. Panama was never branded as a “Tobacco Republic” but the former importance of tobacco here in Chiriqui Province cannot be understated. It was Bill who was in charge at the time when tobacco was king in this region.
So back to “Lucky Strike” as it is a fitting pun since “Lucky Strike” cigarettes were indeed an American Tobacco Product.
Bill came to Panama with the British American Tobacco Company in 1960 and the bulk of the tobacco was cultivated 20 kilometres from David for Panamanian consumption as there were no trade relations at that time with the other six Central American countries. In 1990 trade relations were established between these countries with the result that tobacco manufacturing was centralized in one country only and that country was Honduras. So that is how globalization works as tobacco products are still being produced there.
Bill noted that a year and a half ago Panama introduced smoking restrictions and raised the price of tobacco products. It suddenly occurred to me that I have seen very few people in Panama smoking as a pack of cigarettes costs $3.50. When your daily wage could be $10 that is a lot of money.
Can you be a tobacco company executive and not smoke? Well, not really. So yes, Bill did smoke for 37 years but a health scare of shortness of breath and a blocked artery in 1993 made him quit. He said he had no trouble quitting just by will power but he did carry a pack of cigarettes around in his shirt pocket for a long time without smoking any cigarettes. That method may have worked for Bill but I do not see it replacing Nicorettes very soon. Or to put it another way, if that isn't the definition of will power – just stop smoking and carry around a cigarette pack in your shirt pocket – I don’t know what is.
So Bill’s attachment to the area is undeniable since he and his wife have been coming back here for 26 years. One of his greatest friendships seems to have been with the manager of the Gran Hotel Nacional since he was here 45 years ago for the wedding of the manager and his wife. He insisted that I should meet the manager, Paul Hort, and that later turned out to be my second interview.
Bill’s wife is from San Jose, Costa Rica of American parents. Her father worked for the United Fruit Company that was located in David as well. Bill went on to say that the United Fruit Company built the Gran Hotel Nacional for its workers. They also built the railway to Puerto Armuelles, a banana-growing region recently shut down due to union problems (blog on Puerto Armuelles to follow).
I asked Bill about his most compelling moment in Panama. For that he had to go back to the year 1964 when there was an uprising in the Canal Zone.
….. here is a quote from “The 1964 Riots”
Word of the gesture soon spread across the border, and on the evening of the second day, January 9, 1964, nearly 200 Panamanian students marched into the Canal Zone with their flag. A struggle ensued, and the Panamanian flag was torn. After that provocation, thousands of Panamanians stormed the border fence. The rioting lasted 3 days, and resulted in more than 20 deaths, serious injuries to several hundred persons, and more than US$2 million of property damage.
Bill continued by saying as hell broke out across Panama there was rioting in David as mobs roamed the streets looking for Americans. He observed from his balcony as his American car was set on fire. He knew he and his wife had to get out of the apartment that they occupied but where to go?
He knew Commandante Omar Torrijos who at the time was in charge of Chitré Province and who later became President of the Republic of Panama.
Bill called Torrijos but was told that he was out checking the streets of David.
In the end, he and his family were rescued by American ladies who were married to Panamanians. They left on a Friday with only the clothing on their backs and ended up at the Gran Hotel Nacional.
On the Saturday the mobs were still roaming the streets of David looking for Americans and it was the local Lions Club that negotiated with Commandante Torrijos to get the Americans out of Panama.
On Sunday there was a huge demonstration planned for Plaza Cervantes, the main city park located in the middle of downtown. Torrijos was of the opinion that this would be the best time for the Americans to leave and that he would call both sides of the border to facilitate the escape. A car was waiting on Sunday and that is how the escape was made with no problems getting across the border due to the intervention of Torrijos. Bill also mentioned that the manager of the Gran Hotel Nacional – Paul Hort – also played an important role in facilitating the escape. The two men have been friends for a long time and this incident further bonded their friendship that spans over many years to the present day.
On an historical note, Arnulfo Arias was President in 1968 when Torrijos and Colonel Martinez instigated a coup. Subsequently Colonel Martinez was exiled to Florida and Torrijos became President of Panama. Manuel Noriega then replaced Torrijos as Commandante of Chitré Province. Torrijos stepped down as President in 1978. In 1983 Manuel Noriega became Military Dictator only to be overthrown by the U.S. in 1989. He was jailed for drug trafficking in the U.S. and most recently has been sentenced in France for money laundering.
After escaping Panama, Bill stayed only two weeks in Costa Rica before coming back to David with his boss. They lived in the bosses’ house in the suburbs of David. There was a sense of urgency in their return since this was the middle of the tobacco harvest. For two weeks groups came around and threw rocks on the roof in an effort to provoke a confrontation but the two men never reacted preferring to lay low waiting for the hostilities to pass over and indeed with time the situation cooled off. At the end of three months their wives came from Costa Rica to join them in David.
In 1973 he was moved to Thailand where he worked for five years with the help of an interpreter. I wanted to know a little about the Thai people and what it was like to work with them. Upon reflection Bill said that the Thai are taught from childhood not to disagree. The response of his workers was always “Yes, we did that” but often it was not done – it was a cultural thing. That meant it often took twice as long to get the job done.
It is not often that I was face to face with a former tobacco executive and I was curious to learn about the various types of tobaccos. It was thus that I learned about the “flue cured” tobacco that is kiln dried and the “burley” tobacco that is air-cured and “cigar” tobacco that is air-dried as well. Cuba has the best cigar tobacco making the Cuban cigar still the most desirable cigar around. He also talked about a “black” tobacco.
Our discussion of “burly” tobacco brought out a very distant commonality between Bill and I. During my high school days in Windsor, Ontario I spent part of a summer picking tobacco in Delhi, Ontario a prime tobacco growing region. This was tough and dirty work. Despite the heat of the summer, full body clothing was
required to protect against the staining of the tar contained in the juice of the tobacco leaf. We were paid by piecework, meaning by the amount of tobacco that we picked. I don’t think I lasted the full summer.
Now what did Bill have to do with this? He travelled for several years on behalf of his company to Delhi, Ontario to buy the burley tobacco that was manufactured into “Lucky Strike” cigarettes and other brands made by the British-American Tobacco Company.
My next travel destination on this trip would be Costa Rica and Bill had spent a lot of time in Costa Rica. Being the gentleman that he was, he offered to share some of his knowledge of Costa Rica with me. It quickly became obvious to me that without a map the conversation would be futile. So off I went back to the Residencial Avenida to get my Costa Rica map. After a half-hour break we were back in deep discussion. Bill then spent about another half hour creating a trip for me through Costa Rica. Remember, when I left British Columbia I had no intention of visiting Costa Rica since it is no longer a country that is on the radar screen for most expats due to its high cost of living and its withdrawal of benefits to attract expats.
Bill was negative about San José - the capital city of Costa Rica – where most windows are barred due to persistent crime. He also questioned how a peace-loving nation with an educated population could generate so much delinquency. Costa Rica apparently has free education with an abundance of private universities. He identified this as the “Costa Rican paradox”. On the other hand San Jose because of its altitude, has a great climate having none of the heat of David, Panama.
At that point the manager of the Gran Hotel Nacional – Paul Hort – joined us at the table over a bottle of wine.
Expat Interview no. 11
Paul Hort – Manager of the Gran Hotel Nacional
Quick, what country is known as a world leader in Hotel Management Education? Why Switzerland of course.
As an example:
Swiss is the nationality and educational background of Paul Hort.
So my point is if you owned a hotel would you not hire someone with a Swiss hotelier background? It was thus that Paul Hort became manager of the Gran Hotel Nacional in David as well as many other establishments.
But actually it wasn’t that simple as Paul related the story of how he got his start in the hotel business in Panama.
In March 1958 he was working on the Arosa Sun, a passenger ship of the Arosa Line, as the assistant to the chief steward. Arosa by the way is a famous town in Switzerland.
On 15/3/1958 she sustained an engine explosion off the Columbian coast with the loss of 2 lives, was towed to Cristobal, Panama and then repaired at Baltimore and on 12/5/1958 resumed service New York - Bremen.
Paul tells the story as follows:
The boiler of the Arosa Sun blew up in the middle of the night on the open sea. Paul rushed to his station to start loading the 100 passengers he was responsible for into lifeboats when the order came that the fire had been put out and not to load the life boats.
On a personal note, the mention of the Arosa Line immediately made me think of my own family history. Paul worked on the “Arosa Sun” in 1958. My father landed to Halifax, Canada from Bremerhafen, Germany in January 1954 on the “Arosa Star” and my mother and I landed in Quebec City from Bremerhafen, Germany in October of 1954 on the “Arosa Kulm”.
With the Arosa Sun incapacitated from the explosion and having been towed to Cristobal, Panama, Paul asked the captain for permission to go on land and look for work. With some hesitation the captain gave him 24 hours to do so.
At the age of 24, dressed in his tropical whites, he headed off to the Hilton Hotel in Panama City where he found the manager by the pool. Paul did not even need 24 hours. Things developed quickly as he heard the words, “you can start tomorrow” from the manager and he had his work permit with 48 hours.
Since then he has worked in hotels on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean but seemed to be most proud of his time spent at the world famous Dorchester Hotel in London, England. He was also responsible for the flight kitchen at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City for a number of years at the time when it was served by a record 26 international airlines.
He has spent several periods as manager of the Gran Hotel Nacional and it is likely that he will finish his career as this hotel that has become his life’s work.
About his role at the Gran Hotel Nacional he said that he controls every aspect of business going over every invoice and every expense to squeeze out a profit in a very competitive business. To help achieve that end, the independent hotel has recently remodelled its 117 units.
Paul seems intense and totally dedicated to making this hotel the best place possible and to getting his staff to a certain level of excellence even if it takes continual repetition and practice. During our two interviews I could see his eyes scanning like a hawk the staff around us looking for that edge to make them better.
For a man in his 70’s he is full of energy as he basically works seven days a week and lives with his wife in a suite in the hotel. The many challenges of running a hotel added to the wealth of experience gathered through various postings throughout the world had Paul musing “I should write a book”.
When I brought up the topic of retirement it was brushed aside with “no way”. Paul is the Gran Hotel Nacional – he lives it, he breathes it, how can he retire?
Later he had mellowed a bit and envisioned a retirement where he would split his time between Panama, Switzerland and Florida where his three children live.
He also mentioned the great relationship that he had with his wife and how they discuss and share everything in life. Speaking of his wife – where is she?
She was “tête-a-tête” with Bill’s wife deep in conversation at the poolside bar that prompted Paul to say “What’s going on, I have never seen my wife at the
The two wives “tête-a-tête” in deep conversation was another example of the bond of friendship that spans over 50 years, binding Paul, Bill and their wives in this joint Panamanian experience that has brought a rich life to all of them.
Being Swiss Paul does not mince his words. For example when I mentioned that I had visited the Cerro Punta and Guadeloupe area near Volcan (blog to follow) and how it looked like “Little Switzerland”, which is a term I heard in the area, he replied “if that looks like “Little Switzerland” then I look like a Chinaman! “As I got to
know Paul I realized that he did not become the manager because he was indecisive
and un-opinionated. That is what makes him interesting.
I would like to end with a phrase I used at the start of my blog. Yes, it was a “Lucky Strike” that brought me in contact with these two interesting and cosmopolitan men who are both part of the history of David.
Dolega – Several Degrees Cooler Than David